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Mississippian Spades and Hoes

Carl Latchford, Rock Falls, Illinois 


Figure 1. A cache of Mississippian spades found near Cahokia Mounds in 1950 by Gregory Perino and Ed Milkert. From the collection of Carl Latchford.

Somewhere between 1000 and 1400 AD, an unnamed Mississippian Indian deposited in the corner of his house a cache of 10 spades. Little did he realize that they would lie where he buried them for the next several hundred years, until unearthed by Gregory Perino and Ed Milkert in 1950. The spades, when discovered, were stacked on edge and were lying side by side in the house pattern. The cache consisted of 7 flare bit and 3 ovoid spades and were found on the terrace along the creek bottom out from mound 34 at the Cahokia Mounds site.

The spades range in size from 10 1/2 inches by 4 1/2 inches to 7 1/2 inches by 4 1/2 inches. Some show much use; some were never used. Several of those that had been used show a varying amount of opal phyialith or “plant gloss.” As is typical of these implements, nine were of the more common tan Mill Creek chert and one is of a marbled gray and white material with red streaks. The Mill Creek quarry is located in Union County, Illinois.

Mississippian spades are generally divided into two categories: spades and hoes. Spades are subdivided into the ovate or ovoid and the trian­guloid forms. Hoes, which assume the form of a truncated ovate, are either notched or unnotched. The notched forms are known as St. Clair Side-notched. A third and comparatively rare form of spade is the stemmed spade. A stemmed spade is similar in form to the ovate or ovoid style, but is a secondary product of the larger form, the main difference being a vertical stem for hafting.

Caches, although not extremely common, have been found in the past.  P.F.  Titterington in his book The Cahokia Mound Group and Its Village Site Materials (1938) has a listing of only a few. One cache of four spades and another of nine notched hoes have been found near Monks Mound. Two oval spades were found near the Powell mound and a group of eight was found near a mound north of Cahokia at the Mitchell site. The largest then-known cache of spades and hoes was found during road construction in 1868 on 6th Street between Summit and St. Clair Avenue, in East St. Louis, Illinois. That cache contained 50 notched hoes and 25 spades. The contractor in charge never took an accurate count and only estimated the numbers. The material quickly separated itself among those present, and the cache was never reassembled.

Due primarily to the fact that Mississippian sites are near the present surface, spades and hoes were found in large numbers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their large size and shiny bits made them easy to spot in the fields, and they were picked up by serious artifact col­lectors and non-collectors alike. The Whelpley collection, for example, contained 397 hoes and 1110 spades for a total of 1507 of these imple­ments. Most of the spades and hoes recovered today are discovered as a result of construction or excavating activities. They, like other arti­facts, are not found in anything approaching the numbers of years ago.

The valley of Mill Creek, which is a tributary of the Cache River in Union County, Illinois, was sparingly used by Paleo and Archaic peoples. Mill Creek was almost ignored by the Middle Woodland groups, and saw only light popula­tions of the Late Woodland inhabitants of the area. With the arrival of the Mississippian peo­ples, however, it became the center of activity for producing the materials that would form many of the spades and hoes that eventually would be found in an area covering 200,000 square miles. Recovered most often in the Illinois and Missouri counties nearest Cahokia, they have also been recovered as far north as the Aztalan area of southern Wisconsin. A few have been found as far east as Blennerhassett Island in eastern Ohio and west to eastern Oklahoma. One hoe in the Whelpley collection was simply labeled Litchfield Connecticut. Surprisingly, Mill Creek spades and hoes are found in some num­bers even in Steward County, Tennessee, which was the center of the Dover flint manufacturing area.

Occasionally, examples of hoes made from other locally obtainable material such as Burlington, Crescent, and LaMoine chert and limestone are found in the Cahokia area. In southern Illinois and the surrounding areas, Mounds and Dongola cherts were used. On the fringe areas of the Mississipian occupation area, other less desirable material like sandstone, limestone and certain igneous and metamorphic material was substituted. All of these combined can only account for 3% of the known examples of Mississippian hoes and spades.

Without question, chert of the Mill Creek val­ley was overwhelmingly preferred for use in the manufacturing of these spades and hoes. This raw material was so desired that some of the open pits were dug to a depth of from 10 to 20 feet and a diameter of from 12 to 40 feet. In some areas there is even evidence of lateral tunnels having been driven. The main reason Mill Creek chert was so highly prized may lie in the fact that in its natural state it is found in slabs from 2 to 5 inches thick and up to 2 feet long and 1 foot wide. This made it ideal for use in the man­ufacturing of larger flint items. An even greater advantage resulted from the decay of the lime­stone surrounding the chert nodules, leaving behind a clay matrix which was relatively easy to remove by Mississippian miners.


Figure 2. Closer view of three of the 1950s cached spades found near cahokia Mounds. Carl Latchford collection

Although there is little real question about the use of spades and hoes, there does remain a degree of uncertainty as to whether both were hafted in an identical fashion. The side-notched form in some cases indicates that a handle may have been fastened in a manner perpendicular to the long axis. It was not positively known how spades were even halfted until 1979, when the famous bauxite statue known as the “Birger Figurine” was discovered by the University of Illinois archaeologists. The 8-inch high figure is of a kneeling woman with a short handled spade in her right hand. It is a clear visual indication that they, at least, were mounted on a short L-shaped wooden handle (see cover of Ohio Archaeologist, Vol. 30, Winter 1980. #1 or page 52, Vol. 27, # 2, 1980 Central States Archaeological Journal.)

Although no extensive studies have been done to plot a distribution pattern difference between spades and hoes, there does seem to be indica­tions that hoes are generally widely distributed and found in low-lying areas. Spades, on the other hand, are found in the uplands, valleys, and the low-lying areas. Mississippian farmers showed a preference for the oak and hickory forested portions of their occupation area, stay­ing to the forested areas of the lower and central valleys of the Kaskaskia and the Illinois River valley and its larger tributaries. They avoided the prairie areas of the Grand, Carthage, Bushnell, Shannon and Mendota prairies of Illinois. The rock shelters that were available in the river valleys apparently were considered adequate field camps for the duration of the growing season.

When I wrote to Mr. Perino to verify the infor­mation about the cache of spades, he expressed some concern that at a future date the cache might be broken up. It is true that in the past several have, but this is one that, as long as it remains in my possession, will not. It is an increasingly more difficult undertaking each year to acquire artifacts that have a documented history. The fact that they were found at Cahokia and are documented as such makes them of greater interest to me and of more importance to the collectors that come after.


Cahokia Mounds Site before it became World Heritage Site. Note the subdivision in the lower part of the photograph. These home have long since been removed in order to restore the site.


Hoehr, Peter

1980 “Utilitarian artifacts from the Cahokia site,”

Cahokia Brought to Life. 2nd printing, 1980. Greater St. Louis Archaeological Society, pp.41-42. 

Blake Leonard W. and James G. Houser

“The Whelpley Collection of Indian Artifacts,”

Transactions of the Academy of Science of St. Louis. Vol. 32 No. 1, pp. 34-36. 

Hakiel, Nicholas E.

1980 “The FAI-270 Archaeological Mitigation Project in Illinois,” Ohio Archaeologist, Vol. 30 winter No. 1, pp. 4-5. Titterington, P. F.

1938 The Cahokia Mound Group and Its Village Site Material, Cahokia Mounds Museum Society. pp.5-6. Winters, H.D.

1979 “Observations on Mississippian Hoes,” H. D. Winters, Kampsville, Illinois.

1881 “Excavations in Museums: notes on Mississippian Hoes and Middle Woodland Copper Gouges and Celts,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 376, pp. 23-34.

Perino, Gregory

1983 Personal communication.